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The Sarashina Diary

Sugawara no Takasue no Musume

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Title: The Sarashina Diary
Author: Sugawara no Takasue no Musume
Genre: Diary
Written: ca. 1060 (Eng. 2014)
Length: 218 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: The Sarashina Diary - US
The Sarashina Diary - UK
The Sarashina Diary - Canada
The Sarashina Diary - India
Le Journal de Sarashina - France
Sarashina-nikki - Deutschland
Le memorie di Sarashina - Italia
Sueños y ensoñaciones de una dama de Heian - España
  • A Woman's Life in Eleventh-Century Japan
  • Japanese title: 更級日記
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Sonja Arntzen and Moriyuki Itō
  • With an Afterword by Moriyuki Itō
  • Previously translated by Annie Shepley Omori and Kochi Doi (1920, in Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan) and as As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams by Ivan Morris (1971)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : appealing document; good presentation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev.* . 26/12/1920 .
The NY Times Book Rev.* . 11/6/1971 Thomas Lask
Sunday Times* . 2/10/1921 H.C.Minchin
Sunday Times* . 19/12/1971 Louis Allen
TLS* . 25/4/1936 J.O.P.Bland
TLS* . 5/5/1972 .

[*: review of an earlier translation]

  From the Reviews:
  • "But if this Eastern Sappho [Izumi Shikibu] was the guest of time, the writer of the 'Sarashina' diary is the pilgrim of eternity. Seeking after the truth of things in much self-communing, she was miserable at court." - H.C.Minchin, Sunday Times

  • "This is perhaps the value of such a translation appearing now: an utterly different kind of life is proposed, in which the limitations of the individual's being are not simply trodden under a rush of fulfilment, but transcended by the gifts of religion and art." - Louis Allen, Sunday Times

  • "The Lady from Sarashina is as delicate a wraith as any in literature (.....) Yet somehow that Lady's retiring personality and exquisite sensibility emerge in strange clarity from her gossamer prose." - Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Sarashina Diary is, as the translator/editors note, "one of six major literary diaries from the mid-Heian period, roughly 900 to 1100" (with five of the six authored by women). It isn't a traditional diary, but rather a (selective) memoir, covering her life from when Takasue no Musume was thirteen through old age. [The author's personal name is not known -- which is not uncommon for women of this time -- ; "The author's name literally means 'Sugawara no Takasue's daughter'".] From a fairly prominent family -- direct descendants of Sugawara no Michizane -- she married fairly late (at age thirty-three), and occasionally served at the imperial court (which "would have brought the author in contact with the highest-ranking members of Heian society"). Most notable, however, is her interest in literature, and especially the Tale of Genji; indeed, as noted in the Introduction:

     The Sarashina Diary secured for its author a place in Japanese literary history as the first "reader" of the Tale of Genji, not merely because she recorded reading the tale, but because she communicated how this work affected her life.
       Already in the first entry Takasue no Musume presents herself as a young girl with one great passion:
I became so impatient that I made a life-size image of the Healing Buddha, and, performing purification rituals when no one else was around, I would secretly enter the room. Touching my forehead to the floor, I owuld pray with abandon. "Please grant that I should go to the capital as soon as possible, where there are so many tales, and please let me get to read all of them."
       Her day -- and life -- seem to be made when she meets an aunt:
When I was about to return home, she said, "What shall I give you for a present ? Certainly it should not be anything practical. I would like to give you something you really want." Then she gave me the fifty-odd chapters of the Tale of Genji in a large box, as well as the Ariwara Middle Captain [i.e. the Tales of Ise], Tōgimi, Serikawa, Shirara, Azōsu, and others in a bag. Carrying them home, the joy I felt was incredible.
       She remains a romantic daydreamer -- though increasingly racked by guilt about not being as religiously devoted as she thinks she should be. She notes:
Nowadays it seems that people read sutras and devote themselves to religious practice even from the age of seventeen or eighteen, but I was unable to put my mind to that sort of thing.
       Clearly, the guilt gnawed at her, as she even reports being rebuked in her dreams, as when a monk appears to her and chides:
"Unaware of the sad future awaiting you, you just waste your time on frivolous concerns."
       Takasue no Musume is not only a passionate reader, but she also composes poetry, and her waka are interspersed throughout the text, often with mention of the place and circumstances she came to compose them.
       The 'literary' aspects to the diary make it a particularly appealing text, as does Takasue no Musume's forthrightness, from her self-doubt about her duties at court (she feels way in over her head) to other blunt assessments. Somewhat disappointingly, she's very selective in her account, and there's very little mention of, for example, her husband -- though she sincerely recounts her great sadness at his death, leading her also to yet again beat herself up over her literary pursuits:
     Long ago, rather than being infatuated with all those frivolous tales and poems, if I had only devoted myself to religious practice day and night, I wonder, would I have been spared this nightmarish fate ?
       This new translation by Sonja Arntzen and longtime Sarashina nikki-scholar Moriyuki Itō includes a detailed, near-ninety-page 'Introduction and Study' that provides much helpful background information and analysis. As often with such introductions, it arguably reveals too much; aspects of the study-part are certainly better saved for until after the reader has engaged with the text proper -- but some of the context basics are certainly welcome before encountering the diary itself.
       The diary itself is printed with the explanatory notes facing the text -- i.e. for each left-hand page of text the corresponding right-hand side has the explanatory notes -- rather than as footnotes, or endnotes, which does indeed seem the least disruptive way of accessibly presenting the necessary information. The waka are printed side-by-side with the transliterated Japanese originals. There are also numerous illustrations, as well two appendices, with genealogical tables and maps.
       This is a well-conceived edition of a poignant text that remains of both literary and historical appeal, with very good presentation of useful supporting material to go with the solid translation.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 August 2014

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The Sarashina Diary: Reviews (*: review of a previous translation): Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Sugawara no Takasue no Musume (菅原孝標女) was born in 1008.

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© 2014-2021 the complete review

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